“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?" Nick Miller looks for answers.
When we were young and innocent, our parents seemed infallible. They could do no wrong, and they were our models for humanity. They provided examples of what we should be when we grow up. They were, as Tyler Durden said, our models for God.
And then one day, they would do something wrong. It could be as simple as hitting their hand with a hammer while putting up a picture, or as serious as having an affair, but either ways the illusion would be broken. From deities, they became flawed humans. This moment comes at different times for different people, but it usually does come.
I don’t remember a moment like that with my own parents, but I do with Stuart Pearce.
My first football game was in 1988. I was five, and Forest were playing Wimbledon, and I’m told I only went because my mother was arranging a party somewhere and couldn’t use her season ticket. We lost 1-0, but I insisted on going back again and again that season, perhaps proving there was little hope for me from the start. I recall little snippets from my first season, but the overriding memory was of this blonde-headed force of nature charging up and down the left side of the pitch.
Pearce was a hero for every Forest fan, but he was at the peak of his powers when football was first entering my consciousness, and by extension my soul. Therefore, you can understand why he was a particular idol for me. I worshipped Pearce in the same way that a Catholic bows down to a saint – I believed him to be an all-powerful being, impossible to stop, with magical powers of making all before him bend to his will.
A player as visceral as Pearce was perfect for an excitable kid. If I’d been 28 in 1988, I probably would’ve been drawn to Des Walker’s elegance or the grit and grace of Nigel Clough, but Pearce was a thrilling sight for an impressionable boy. He embodied all the things that would draw a child to football.
By the World Cup of 1990 my messianic view of Pearce was at its zenith. His fierce patriotism was the sole reason for my brief brush with chest-thumping Ingerlundism (as chest-thumping as a six-year-old can be), so the sight of Pearce in an England shirt was almost more than my childish heart could take.
At this point he was still infallible, but then he missed that penalty. He cried, but I cried more, a mixture of confusion and grief escaping through my eyes. I couldn’t understand how this God-like figure could have possibly failed at anything, let alone scoring a penalty for England.
My mother tends not to bring out the baby pictures when she meets friends and girlfriends, but she is fond of telling people that at that moment, the only words I could bring myself to blub out from between the sobs were “But why did he miss mummy? Why?”
Obviously, as a six-year-old kid I knew little of psychological theories on loss of innocence, but looking back that was the moment I realised that heroes are flawed, that they are just people as prone to making mistakes as anyone else.
It’s an important developmental step for any nascent human to take, and illustrates what a role football can play in anyone’s upbringing, not least in certain relationships. I’ve been watching football for 23 years, and in that time I’ve probably been to no more than a dozen games without my dad. It just isn’t the same without him.
The father/son bonding experience in football has been written about in plenty of places before. I’d probably still be as close to my parents as I currently am without the influence of football, but there’s no way it would’ve been as easy, and it certainly would’ve taken longer.
Common ground is crucial for any healthy upbringing. It makes our parents less distant to us, gives us something to talk about and something to relate to. Football is different than say, music or art or books because it’s not only a shared interest, but a truly shared experience, in that you have common highs and lows. When football made me miserable, it usually made my dad miserable too, and there’s nothing like a father and son helping each other wallow in misery. That, friends, is bonding.
To selectively quote Tyler Durden again (and, for the record, I’m not one of those who regard this fictional character as a prophet – if nothing else the people who pay my salary would probably have a thing to say about ripping down capitalism and starting again), our generation have no great war or great depression. We have other things to be a bit miserable about, but there’s not a great deal that is common to everyone, that binds us in camaraderie. This is where football comes in.
This is not to say the woe of the disappointed football fan is the same as a great depression, but in relative terms we (and by ‘we’ I mean the 21st century British) have things pretty good. And because the human condition includes a desire to complain and feel miserable sometimes, football is a fairly safe and easy way to get our demons out. As Nick Hornby wrote, we need something to sit in bars and weep about.
Football is also character building, without inflicting genuine ‘real life’ psychological or physical damage. If you’re relatively well-adjusted, footballing disappointment should condition you to deal with other forms of let-downs, but not actually harm you or fuck you up in any serious way.
So the next time someone tries the old ‘Ah, but it’s only a game’ guff, get some coffee on the go, find a comfy place to sit down and explain that without this glorious irrelevance, you’d be a totally different person. For that, I have Stuart Pearce and his fallibility to thank.
Nick can be found on Twitter @NickMiller79.